The Hippopotamus, 2017
Directed by John Jencks.
Starring Roger Allam, Fiona Shaw, Tim McInnerny, Emily Berrington, Geraldine Somerville, and Matthew Modine.
Ted Wallace, a washed up, alcoholic theatre critic, is recruited by his estranged god-daughter to establish if a miracle has occurred at the ancestral home of his oldest friend, leading him on a journey of misadventure…
There aren’t many actors who can take a role tailor-made for Stephen Fry’s prosaic, upper middle class cutting wit and make it their own, but Roger Allam makes the trick work with The Hippopotamus. Adapted from Fry’s 1994 book of the same name, Allam is Ted Wallace, an embittered, middle-aged theatre critic who lives alone inside a bottle most of the time, and makes a living tearing apart poorly made drama. We see such a tirade at the beginning before Ted goes too far, ends up with the sack, and gets drawn into an unusual mixture of PI investigation and a drama of family recriminations. John Jencks, in adapting Fry’s book, keeps the wit close by almost in an omnipresent narration from Allam which serves as Ted’s inner monologue, allowing us to witness a gallery of eccentrics through his caustic, sceptical eyes.
Underneath the frightful upper working class comedy of it all, The Hippopotamus is a sly rebuke of new age healing cults and natural remedies; the very gambit at the heart of Ted’s investigation at the languorous Swafford Hall is David (Tommy Knight), a fey teenage boy who spends his days wanking in woodland glades and attempting to write profound poetry about it; he sees Ted, a former potentially great British poet who fell foul of drink, self-doubt and more than a little cynical realisation, as a beacon of literature and inspiration, but Ted swiftly disabuses him of a life as a poet in that cutting, brash way few can do as well as Allam on form, and with a genuinely funny script of the like Blanche McIntrye & Tom Hodgson adapt here. David is considered something of a Christ child, blessed with the power of healing, and Ted must work his way through a myriad of British oddballs to discover either the presence of miracles or charlatans.
In the end, Fry’s message is a little more nihilistic in a sense, and certainly atheist; there’s no grand redemption for Ted, no moment of epiphany, no startling realisation, but there is some level of awakening. Jencks ensures, thanks to Allam’s consistent self-deprecation and spiky monologue, the film never dips into any level of sentimentality, the script keeping us at arm’s length enough to enjoy a blend of good old-fashioned wordplay, a touch of farce and plenty of biting one-liners and observational humour that almost always land successfully.
A strong cast help – Tim McInnerny in full pompous mode as a self-obsessed, comically homosexual theatre director, Fiona Shaw as a concerned mother, Matthew Modine in the odd (and somewhat unformed) role of an American turned English Lord of the manor, and Geraldine Somerville as Ted equally embittered ex-wife. The film, however, belongs entirely to Allam, pivoting around his character who in such a skilled actor’s hands manages to be likeable despite in theory being a selfish, rude, boorish human being. Ted is like Hercule Poirot had a baby with Richard E. Grant’s Withnail, and that’s as absurdly comical as it sounds.
Shot with one eye on the splendour of the English countryside, full of open fields and grand old halls, The Hippopotamus takes a dry, acerbic pot-shot at the entitled vanity of art and privilege while embracing its possibilities at the same time. Stephen Fry’s original novel has taken a long time to adapt but on the basis of this John Jencks’ effort was worth it; a spiky script with enough character work to balance out some enjoyably caustic gags, a level of Agatha Christie intrigue counterbalanced by a wry, farcical absurdity pulsing underneath, and a superb central performance by Roger Allam which brings to life a central character who should have been loathsome but ultimately turns out to be someone you enjoy spending time with.
Unlikely to set the world alight, but The Hippopotamus is a fine example of modern British wit on-screen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★